What’s That Building?: Well, It’s An Entire Neighborhood | WBEZ
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What's That Building? Marktown, A Neighborhood In East Chicago

Marktown is a tiny town surrounded by heavy industry, an almost secret remnant of a more idealistic time. Quaint, colorful cottages and gardens line the narrow streets that led to the steel mill where a century ago, residents would work. It is a never-finished development that its designer hoped would be the ideal company town.

The East Chicago, Indiana, community stretches about a quarter-mile long and quarter-mile wide, and a Google Maps search shows a little grid of residential blocks with a strip of parkland on two sides. Go for a walk around those blocks and you can imagine yourself in a charming little European village, with pretty little peaked-roof cottages clustered around common gardens.

Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin discusses Marktown’s hopeful past and how it developed into the isolated community it is today.

Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ

A grand plan for Marktown

A hundred years (and two weeks) ago, the Lake County Times in Hammond, Indiana, announced the construction start of "the most stupendous building project.”

The town was the idea of Clayton Mark, a Chicago industrialist who had opened a steel pipe-making factory on the Indiana harbor a year earlier. His company had outgrown its Evanston factory, so Mark decided to build a northwest Indiana factory and accompanying town that would fill almost 200 acres of East Chicago’s then-swampland with housing for workers he expected to hire.

Mark picked Howard Van Doren Shaw to be Marktown’s architect. As one of Chicago's most stylish and prolific architects in the early 20th century, Shaw designed mansions in the city and the North Shore, as well as churches, South Loop manufacturing buildings, a State Street highrise, and other reputable developments.

Shaw had built a grand lakefront mansion in Lake Forest for Mark in 1912, and Shaw's Market Square, a European-inspired shopping core across from the town’s train station, opened four years later. For Marktown, he drew up plans for a town where lower-class workers would have homes that were as well thought-out as the Lake Forest mansions he’d built.

Shaw did two things to make the small, often four-room cottages feel grander: He would group two or four of them together in wider buildings so that a tiny cottage would be a slice of what looked like a larger mansion, and he staggered many of the buildings on their small lots so that most homes looked out into each other's gardens instead of at each other’s windows.

The houses were similar to one another, designed with enough style variation that the buildings wouldn’t look monotonous, and a school, a hotel, a market center, a library, and other community amenities were also in the works.

Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ

Changing plans

Mark and Shaw’s original plan was as ambitious a plan as Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood, built to house Pullman Palace Car Company workers in the mid-to-late 19th century. But, far less of Marktown was completed. In 1920, three years after starting Marktown, Mark's steel company was absorbed into a larger firm, and then in 1923, an even larger firm.

Town construction died under the new ownership, and only 40 acres of housing for 1,200 people were built instead of the planned 190 acres for 8,000 people. The homes were still owned by the firms until 1941, when Ohio-based Youngstown Sheet and Tube started selling them off. 

Marktown today

Much of what was built under Mark is intact, although some houses are empty or rundown. The land around Marktown became more and more intensively developed for industrial users as years passed, surrounding today’s Marktown with tank farms and giant steel plants. It now stands in a delicate balance with its industrial neighbors, the threat of being bought up and wiped out by one of them rising and falling.

So, when you visit Marktown, you're mostly doing a tour of what might have been, and it's easy to see the town's charm. Postcard-pretty cottages stand clustered around lawns with addresses emblazoned in a blue and white shield. But those still picturesque homes stand side-by-side with half-ruined ones. You can't help but hope that some deep-pockets philanthropist would come in and turn back the clock to 1917.

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